The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Impact of History

On Wednesday, 20th July, the fellows of the GHRA 2016 discussed topical issues as well as the role and impact of history with Charlotte Lindsey Curtet at the Humanitarium, the conference centre at the headquarters of the ICRC in Geneva. As Director of Communication and Information Management since 2010, Charlotte Lindsey is not only current in all present affairs but also responsible for the Archives of the ICRC.

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Charlotte Lindsey Curtet with the fellows of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy, Geneva 20 July 2016.

She herself has witnessed great changes since she joined the organisation in 1993 when she first went on missions to Bosnia and Ruanda. In 1999-2000 she conducted a major research on women and war resulting in the publication of Women Facing War (2001). The findings in some instances surprised her herself, she said. Looking at women not merely through the prism of sexual violence and as victims but as actors in their own right broadened the perspectives and made the ICRC more gender sensitive in terms of operational response as well as legal development. The “all victims approach” prevalent until then has since been abandoned in favour of a more nuanced notion without giving up the principle of impartiality. In more recent years, similar discussions are taking place in relation to the challenges of cultural and particularly religious differences. The aim always is to find communality in order to come to the aid of those who suffer across the divides of a conflict. Increasing Respect for International Humanitarian Law in non-International Armed Conflicts (2008) suggests in a chapter on “strategic argumentation” to appeal to core values as “the fundamental principles of humanitarian law are often mirrored in the values, ethics or morality of local cultures and traditions. Pointing out how certain rules or principles found in IHL also exist within the culture of a party to a conflict can help lead to increased compliance“ (p. 31).

On the role of history and history writing, Charlotte Lindsey explained that the ICRC no longer writes its own official history but periodically makes the archives available for scholarly research. In 1996, the ICRC decided, after long internal discussions, to open its archives for the period 1863-1950 and most recently, in June 2015, the general archives covering the period 1966-1975 have been opened (see Daniel Palmieri in the Online Atlas on the History of Humanitarianism and Human Rights). Charlotte Lindsay emphasised the value of the archives for the officers, delegates, and regional directors of the ICRC. The organisation needs a memory to conduct present missions successfully. First of all, it works on precedents as much as on International Humanitarian Law. In addition, having completed missions, the ICRC in later years often has to return to certain areas of conflict. While the people in those areas remember their history of conflicts and the role of the ICRC often very well, the new members of returning missions must be informed about what the conflict was and what went on before in order to maintain their own security and retain the trust in its neutrality. Here the historical memory of a humanitarian organisation plays a vital role. There should be a connection between the ICRC activities and the knowledge preserved in the archives. The “Custodian of the Archives” is therefore faced with the challenge to combine corporate information management and historical memory as well as, at the same time, she needs to protect the security of field operations. In the digital age, the loss of memory proves a major problem that needs urgent attention by organisation like the ICRC and by historians.
The GHRA participants engaged in a lively debate with the Director of Communications and Information Management. They appreciated the chance to enter into a dialogue with present members of staff which enlightens their historical investigation. Charlotte Lindsey on her side warmly welcomed the PhD and Postdoc researchers as they are, through their research on the history of humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law enrich the historical knowledge on which organisations such as the ICRC can draw when reflecting on their actions.

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